Conwy Castle: This Fine Medieval Welsh Castle was Built for a Ferocious English King
Wales is famous for many things - its singers, sports, incredible scenery and of course its many great castles. One of the most famous of these is Conwy (Conway) Castle, which is widely regarded as one of the finest medieval fortresses in all of Europe. And having the Welsh dragon flutter over the site adds to the appeal. This stronghold, which played a crucial role in the history of the British Isles, is a World Heritage Site and a popular tourist destination for good reason.
The Dramatic History of Conwy Castle
Conwy Castle was built for one of the most aggressive English kings, Edward I. He was the monarch who conquered Wales and incorporated it into a union with England. Between 1283 and 1289 the English forces waged a war of attrition against the native Welsh princes. Key to their strategy was the construction of massive fortifications - an iron ring of castles - intended to keep the Welsh subjugated.
The building project was undertaken by James of St George, one of the most important medieval castle builders. It was constructed as part of the development of a larger town, known as Conway, then an English colony. The castle and the surrounding town cost around £15000 (19375 USD) to construct.
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Wales was restless in the Middle Ages and was rocked by continuous rebellions against English rule. The castle was besieged by an army of Welsh rebels in 1294-95, but the English garrison held out. In 1401 the castle was seized by the forces of Owain Glyndwr in the last strong Welsh rebellion, but it was later recaptured.
Richard II found temporary refuge here during the revolt by his nobles in 1399. When the First English Civil War erupted the fortress was held by Cavalier forces loyal to King Charles I. For five long years the castle resisted Roundhead or Parliamentary attacks. In 1646, the army of the English Parliament seized the castle and tore down some of its ramparts and removed anything of value, including the lead from the roof.
Conwy castle, Wales. (Radu Micu/CC BY NC ND 2.0)
By the 1670s, after centuries of a long and battle-scarred history, the castle was in ruins and lay uninhabited. But a new value emerged when it became popular with painters in the 18th and 19th century. There are many fine paintings of the medieval fortifications.
Conwy Castle with rainbow after a storm (circa 1778) by George Barret Sr. (Public Domain)
Majestic Conwy Castle
The castle is situated at the entrance to the town of Conwy. In its heyday it could only be approached from the main peninsula via an imposing suspension bridge. Its dominating walls and buildings were crafted from local and imported stone, and its walls were plastered white.
Conwy castle - the interior The roofless Great Hall is visible, along with the North West, South West & Prison Towers. (Nigel Chadwick/CC BY SA 2.0)
Conwy castle is divided into an inner and an outer ward, once divided by a ditch that could only be traversed using a drawbridge. If the outer ward was taken by the enemy, the garrison could protect the inner ward.
The original eight towers are well-preserved, and their connecting walls are all intact. Climbing to the tops of the towers, past the narrow arrow loops, it’s easy to visualize the archers shooting down at attackers. The views from the top, especially that of Conway harbor and the North Wales coastline, are mesmerizing.
The castle plan was rectangular, an unusual design as the other fortresses built for Edward were circular. There are two entrances to the fortress: The main entrance is guarded by two barbicans, fortified posts, that flanked the original gates; the second entrance is a postern or sally port, which was used as a secret entrance or to launch surprise attacks on besiegers.
Recreation of Conwy Castle, early 1300s. (Hchc2009/CC BY SA 3.0)
Once the castle held many buildings, but these are all now unroofed. The remains of the Great Hall as well as King’s Hall and the walls of the Royal apartments convey a hint of the grandeur James of St George created.
It is possible to descend into the cellars or, for a more gruesome view, go down into the dark dungeon at the base of the prison tower where, according to legend, many prisoners went mad or died. Possibly both.
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The Scenic Journey to Conwy
There are good roads from all over England through Wales to Conwy, such as the A55 from London. An admission fee is requested and there are guided tours, which is recommended simply because of the vast history contained in these compact walls.
Conwy castle and the A547 road bridge. (Richard Hoare/CC BY SA 2.0)
Conwy Castle had many walkways and it is possible to walk the complete circuit of the wall. The modern entrance is up a steep hill and some of the walkways are high so do be careful when taking in the scenery.
Accommodation in and near Conwy Castle is plentiful and, although the town has modern shops, it still feels like stepping back into medieval Wales.
Top image: Conwy Castle, a fine medieval castle in Wales. Source: Pecold / Adobe Stock
By Ed Whelan
Rickard, J. (2002). The castle community: the personnel of English and Welsh castles, 1272-1422. London: Boydell Press. Available at: https://books.google.ie/books?hl=en&lr=&id=GgTBxtdwzk8C&oi=fnd&pg=PR7&dq=conway+castle+wales&ots=OrVbrNqq6U&sig=UzpvKjAStxSgp5rGYXUbFa3QVAA&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=conway%20castle%20wales&f=false
Sherborne, J. (1974). Richard II's Return to Wales, July 1399. Welsh History Review= Cylchgrawn Hanes Cymru, 7, 389. Available at: https://search.proquest.com/openview/54cd72b19afbde8a37e7b19a3fe4dff5/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=1820145